The Bible in Worship
The other day I was having a conversation with someone about why we don’t have bibles in the pews of our Churches. As part of the conversation, it was noted that in the churches this person had visited, the pews had lots of liturgy books, but no bibles. “Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to read their bibles when they come to Church?” May answer may surprise you.
As the conversation developed, we discussed the basic reality that in my particular case, there was no room in the pews for bibles since they were filled with liturgy books, but then that sort of proved the point of the question. Another priest had responded that he didn’t want bibles in the Church because he wanted his people to dwell upon the Holy Spirit when they were in church.
Keep in mind, that the impetus behind the original question is the reality the Protestant Churches are filled with bibles. There is a difference between Protestant worship and Orthodox Worship. First of all, Protestant worship has become barely more than a Bible study with some songs, so it makes perfect sense that people would have bibles in the Church. Nearly every word of the Divine Liturgy is either a direct citation or paraphrase of Scripture, so just by praying the Liturgy, we are indeed reading Scripture, so it makes perfect sense that our pews have liturgy books in them. There is much more, however, to the deeper answer.
Unfortunately, since so many Orthodox Christians rarely pick up a bible in their personal lives, most of us are Scripturally illiterate. We would never recognize the citations in the Divine Liturgy were from the Bible. Having a bible in the pew wouldn’t help that problem, but what if we couldn’t read? We should also remember that widespread literacy is a (historically speaking) new phenomenon. In the ancient world, most people could not read, so the Churched needed to figure a way for the people to hear the word of God.
That is where there the worship comes into play, and it is another reason for our contemporary disconnect. In the ancient world, most Christians gathered daily for worship together. In the services, not always a Divine Liturgy, they would hear the Holy Scriptures recited and taught. We see this in the Gospel when Christ taught in the Synagogue. Day by day, they would hear the next verses etc., so that after a year they would have heard the entire Bible recited AS WORSHIP. I’ve blogged before about the Lectionary, so won’t go into too much detail here about the lectionary, but if we are going to Church ONLY on Sundays, and we rarely are there every Sunday, we lose the benefit of hearing the Scriptures in worship. The ancient Church would have heard the Scriptures so often, they would have immediately been able to recognize the citations in the Liturgy.
So, do we fix the problem for our contemporary world? The obvious answer is, we must come to Church as often as we are able, but I also recognize most Churches in America do not have daily services making it impossible. The ‘next best thing’ would be to read the lectionary every day, known as the readings of the day, and eventually the words become familiar to us. When we hear them in Liturgy, we will say, “Oh yes! I just read that last night!” Suddenly the worship takes on a beauty all its own, and you begin to be inspired not only when you attend services in the Church, but when you are reading your bible at home.
This is what happened to me today. While reading today’s Epistle reading from 1st Timothy, St Paul refers to himself as, “the foremost of sinners,” and I immediately recalled the Pre-Communion Prayers when we say, “I am the first among sinners.” St Paul also says in today’s reading that Christ, “Came into the world to save sinners,” also part of the Pre-Communion Prayers. Immediately I was connecting Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion, and the Holy Scriptures in my mind. All this would be much more difficult if the Church hadn’t already made the link for me, centuries ago.
Timothy, my son, I thank him who has given me strength for this, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. – 1st Timothy 1.12-17
One final note. The Church teaches us to place the Holy Scriptures as a central part of our life. They do not replace Holy Communion, but if we make the effort, they can help us see the connection between the two. Next time you are in Church, pay attention to the words of the Liturgy, and you will begin slowly to have a better appreciation of the wisdom of the Church over the centuries.